Our first Susanna (Charlotte Boerner) and Figaro (Ezio Pinza) in our 1936 production.
Morton Photo

Love is that loveliest of four-letter words, yet Mozart reminds us that it has many faces. It makes Count Almaviva, a normally rational man, irrational and petty. As for his wife, while melancholy and moody, given the Count’s waning attentions, she is not so unhappy that a flirtation with the handsome young page boy Cherubino is ruled out. (In fact, in the third Beaumarchais Figaro play, La Mere Coupable [The Guilty Mother], the Countess has a child by Cherubino; their flirting in act two of The Marriage of Figaro can hardly be seen as entirely innocent.)

Then there is Cherubino himself, going hot and cold at the sight of every pretty girl, much like the adolescent Mozart. He plays up to Susanna, worships the Countess, and falls in love with Barbarina. And Susanna, while unquestionably in love with her Figaro and determined to be his wife, nevertheless betrays a certain satisfaction in being the object of the Count’s desires. To complicate matters further and to underscore the Beaumarchais subtitle La folie journee (The Crazy Day), Figaro is unflinchingly sought in marriage by the Count’s aging housekeeper Marcellina, who, in the course of these topsy-turvy twenty-four hours, is discovered to be in fact Figaro’s mother. She in turn reveals that Bartolo, the Count’s lawyer and the person representing her in her suit against Figaro, is his father!

Even the music master Don Basilio falls victim to the amorous madness in the air through his vicarious interest in everyone else’s romantic business. It would seem that only Figaro is not guilty of a roving eye, but he is so jealous where Susanna is concerned, that he is willing to believe her unfaithful without giving her a chance to explain her behavior during the riotous mixup of identities that concludes the opera.

This remarkable final scene perhaps leaves the impression, as William Mann has suggested in his engaging book on the Mozart operas, that Countess Rosina is the opera’s heroine, for it is her forgiveness of the Count’s philandering that brings the evening to a happy and jubilant close. But this is far from the truth, for she has, in Mann’s words, “behaved regularly like a none too bright doll with a lovely voice and features to match.” No, as Mann points out, the real heroine is Susanna.

She is the one pulling the strings, not only with her mistress and Figaro, but with the Count, Cherubino, Barbarina, and Marcellina. And, had necessity dictated it, she would have wound Basilio and Antonio as well around her little finger. The Countess eventually becomes the centerpiece in the grand public reconciliation of the last act, but, as Mann puts it, the scene was “scripted and stage-managed by Susanna.”

Musically, she plays as crucial a part in the opera as she does in the dramatic sense. She is on stage more than any other character, sings more notes than anyone else, and takes part in every one of the opera ensembles. These ensembles are the backbone and the glory of the score. Where would Rossini have been, and Donizetti and Verdi after him, without the model of Mozart’s finale for Act Two of Figaro. Peter Shaffer has best described what happens here in his play Amadeus when he has Mozart say to Joseph II’s ministers:

“I tell you I want to write a finale lasting half an hour! A quartet becoming a quintet becoming a sextet. On and on, wider and wider-all sounds multiplying and rising together-and then together making a sound entirely new; I bet you that’s how God hears the world. Millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us! That’s our job, we composers: to combine the inner minds of him and him and him and her and her—the thoughts of chambermaids and court composers—and turn the audience into God.”

Of all the composers who turned their attention to opera, Mozart was surely the most wonderfully well equipped, not only because he instinctively understood the human voice in terms of song, but because he possessed an innate, classic feeling for formal balance. He brought into a final, concise form all the elements of operatic drama that had come before him, and he influenced all that was to come after him. He was the bridge, as Sir Thomas Beecham was fond of pointing out, between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

Unfinished portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Joseph Lange (1789).
Bridgeman Art Library

Mozart was born at an ideal time for a music dramatist. Opera was the most popular entertainment of the day, especially Italian opera, and everywhere there were theaters ready to stage new works and audiences eager to hear them. The art of singing was at a high level of achievement and stage design was in an innovative and fertile period. Thanks to Christoph Willibald Gluck, and the war he had waged on behalf of drama, the variety of stylistic possibilities opened to a composer was stimulating. Mozart explored them all.

His fourteen stage works are amazing in their diversity of style and their exploration of the voice, and within them can be found virtually every possibility of operatic form as it existed at that time. To these, Mozart added innovations of his own. Yet, ironically, he was not the most successful operatic composer of his day. Widespread recognition came only a scant five years before his death in 1791 with the creation of Le Nozze di Figaro.

The roots of this divine comedy stretch back to 1775 when the composer was at work on a charming but lesser work, II Re Pastore (The Shepherd King). That year in France, playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was at last able to sidestep the censors and produce a play he had written two years earlier entitled I.e Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville). Its premiere was not a success, but with revisions the play caught on and made its author famous and fashionable. Cashing in on that fame, Beaumarchais produced a sequel he called I.e Mariage de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). This, too, triumphed, and it, too, had a sequel—La Mere Coupable—but this failed; the third time was not to be the charm of the Figaro trilogy.

Meanwhile, Le Barbier was set to music as II Barbiere di Siviglia in 1782 by Giovanni Paisiello; a more famous setting (now, but not then) by Rossini would follow 32 years later. The Paisiello setting is important, however, because its popularity was once as great with the theater-going public as was that of the Beaumarchais original play, and nowhere more so than in Vienna. Mozart, who needed a story for a new opera, quite naturally turned to the second play that continued the adventures of the Count Almaviva, his love, Rosina, and his barber–valet, Figaro. It is not generally acknowledged, but I have always suspected that Paisiello’s success spoke louder to Mozart than that of Beaumarchais.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Countess Almaviva in 1958.
Lackenbach photo

The new was always in vogue in Vienna, and Mozart, desperately needing the sort of success that came only with a hit opera, obviously hoped that lightning could as easily strike twice, that Figaro would be for him what Le Barbier had been for Paisiello. With ideas for the opera bursting in his mind, Mozart approached the court dramatist Lorenzo Da Ponte, an extraordinary figure in history, who eventually wound up in New York City where he taught Italian and where he is buried. Could Da Ponte, Mozart inquired, turn the Beaumarchais Figaro into a libretto? Da Ponte was well aware of Mozart’s prodigious talents, and, more to the point, he appreciated them. He must have also been quick to grasp the possibilities the play offered for a musical setting.

But he was well aware that Emperor Joseph II had banned performances of the play, which he considered “licentious” and “provocative.” The Emperor was none too happy about a play centering on a servant who outwits and successfully revolts against his master; it might become too popular in Vienna and give the wrong people the wrong ideas. But Da Ponte felt that given the right situation, he could overcome the Emperor’s objections. So he urged Mozart to begin the composition, work in secret, and wait for the perfect moment to spring the opera on the Emperor.
Within six weeks, Figaro was finished. Mozart entered it in the catalogue he kept of his compositions on April 29, 1786. Da Ponte’s “perfect moment” was not long in coming. A new work was needed at the opera, and the poet offered Figaro to the Emperor. The monarch reminded his court poet that the Beaumarchais drama had been forbidden in Vienna, but Da Ponte replied that he had rewritten the play, and his words and Mozart’s music had eliminated anything that might give offense.

The Emperor then parried by saying that while Mozart was “good” at writing for instruments, he had little standing as an operatic composer. “Without your Majesty’s gracious protection,” DaPonte answered, “I would have written only one drama in Vienna.” With this, the Emperor acquiesced, and shortly afterwards Mozart came to the palace to perform sections of the score, all of which met with royal approval.

The first performance on May 1, 1786, was an immense success in spite of the efforts of rivals (chiefly the courtiers loyal to court composer Antonio Salieri) to create a fiasco. We read that certain singers sang flat or pretended to forget their parts during the first act. Mozart appealed directly to the Emperor, who intervened, ordering the offenders to behave or leave Vienna. Michael Kelly, an Irish tenor who first sang the roles of Don Basilio and Don Curzio, tells us of the preparation and first performances of Figaro in his lively memoirs:

I remember at the first rehearsal of the full band, Mozart was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. Figaro’s song, ‘Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,’ Bennuci gave, with the greatest animation and power of voice.

I was standing close to Mozart, who, sotto voce, was repeating, ‘Bravo! Bravo! Bennuci,’ and when Bennuci came to the fine passage ‘Cherubino, alia vittoria, alia gloria militar,’ which he gave out with Stentorian lungs, the effect was electricity itself, for the whole of the performers onstage, and those in the orchestra, as if actuated by one feeling of delight, vociferated ‘Bravo! Bravo! Maestro. Viva, viva, grande Mozart.’

Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks for the distinguished mark of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him ... [At the first performance] I thought the audience would never have done applauding and calling for Mozart; almost every piece was encored, which prolonged it to nearly the length of two operas, and induced the Emperor to issue an order, on the second representation,  that no piece of music should be encored. Never was anything more complete than the triumph of Mozart and his Nozze di Figaro, to which numerous overflowing audiences bore witness.

Frederica Von Stade (Cherubino), Renee Fleming (Countess Almaviva), and Cheryl Parrish (Susanna) in 1991.
Marty Sohl photo

When the opera was repeated in Prague, an occasion that led to the commissioning of Don Giovanni, Mozart wrote to his friend in Vienna that “Here they talk about nothing else but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me.”

The cheering has continued for more than 200 years. Just what is the enormous appeal this comedy in music continues to exert? There is no denying that it is a marvel of invention, “work that is self-renewing through its ability to speak to audiences of all ages and tastes with immediacy and freshness.” But what specifically is behind its unflagging popularity?

One can and must point to the music. Its tunes are abundant and easily retainable. Such melodies as Figaro’s “Non pili andrai,” Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” and Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” can be hummed as you leave the theater, and the score as a whole flows with absolute naturalness and spontaneity. And then there are those miraculous finales, which take the score to a different plane of dramatic and musical action than had ever been known in opera before.

But many of these same virtues can be found in Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. Yet neither of these works manages to quite move us in the same way that Figaro does. Nor is the answer to be found solely in Da Ponte’s words. Figaro is a good story, well told, but Così is funnier and certainly Giovanni is more dramatic. Perhaps we can come closest to a true understanding of the wonder of Figaro by examining how the Beaumarchais characters, channeled through Da Ponte’s words and Mozart’s music, are made to create a mirror in which each of us sees himself or herself, with vanities reflected, for the abiding quality of Figaro lies in its humanity—in how Mozart characters were transformed into human beings, living people who are at once identifiable and assailable. In comparison, the characters of Così and Giovanni are more stereotypes than individuals.

It is often pointed out that the characters in Figaro come from two different worlds. There is the aristocratic air breathed by the Count and Countess Almaviva, and the more earthly sphere of their servants Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna. But too much is made of the question of class in Figaro. This was an important issue when Figaro was new, and it was responsible for most of the controversy caused by the Figaro plays. But was this really a burning issue with Mozart? Like most musicians he tended to be apolitical; he was more concerned with success than taking a stand.

And the political overtones of Figaro—the fact that the French Revolution was only three years away at the time of its first performance—is only of historic interest today, at least to most of us. What matters more, and I believe it mattered most to Mozart, is the part Eros played in the lives of all who live through Beaumarchais’s “crazy day.” Without getting too Freudian about it all, we have to return to where we began—to love. For this is the generator that hums away in the background and turns the gears of Figaro’s drama. Love—not caricatured as in Cosi or exaggerated as in Don Giovanni or idealized as in The Magic Flute—but warmly human as it is in Figaro keeps this opera so evergreen.
The late John Ardoin was best known as the music critic of The Dallas Morning News for thirty-two years and especially for his friendship with and encyclopedic knowledge of the work of soprano, Maria Callas, about whom he wrote four books. This article appeared in a previous issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.